A TIN OF BISCUITS
I lived by a factory which made fly paper. Late at night the shift whistle would blow, sometimes singing a brief duet with a passing train. When cooler weather came, and the air was damp, everything seemed sticky and sour.
I sometimes had nightmares of standing before the factory gates, unable to move as pairs of people ran by me, blowing on horns, ignoring my plight.
My place, the room was tiny, the door did not open all the way on account of the bed blocking it. Outside a gravel stone parking lot and beyond that a checkerboard of factories and train tracks.
It was ugly, but sometimes I would still stare. From my window, a sickly yellow square of light was painted onto the ground. The gravel gave it rough hewn edges as if the passing trains had shaken it before it had time to dry.
I did like the fact that I could practice my horn and nobody would complain. I would walk down narrow alleyways between factory and fence, and play. The echo added a ghostly aspect which I would never achieve in a club. I will eventually conquer the world, but will most likely have to move first.
The tourists are now mostly gone. We all must take shorter, smaller jobs. Supper clubs full of old people demanding all the obvious standards or noisy bars where people in conversation attempt a bothersome duet with the band.
It depressed me, there was no escape. Between my dry cleaning bills for the shirts which the club demand I wear and food, I was treading water. Five nights a week of playing and I still had to bum smokes and drinks.
Carmella had been a bank clerk, she was going to work her way up, but something broke her.
Self imposed exile, she became a waitress. We spent some time together, but only in the most superficial way. She was now too skitterish to allow anybody to get close. I was in the middle of ruining someone else's life, so did not even try.
By happenstance she met a sugar daddy one day at the florist's. He was gentle, patient. It paid off, she would allow him to take her away from all this. I was sort of sad to see her go and hoped that she did not remember that I owed her money.
He was throwing a party to impress her. She was allowed to extend "X" amount of invitations to her people, so that she would not feel uncomfortable among strangers. This party, the social process that would facilitate her absorption into this new world.
Carmella wanted me there for moral support, she also wanted me to, maybe, bring my horn. Having me sing for my supper was her parting shot, a final bite back for ever having spent time in my arms, before she moved to this new world.
I will go, she can win, this time.
The house was big and full of people. There were tables in corners, piled with food and drink. People I did not know averted their eyes pretending not to see me. I made myself a drink. None of this had anything to do with me, I ate too.
It was hot and I was glad to have not worn my one tie. Carmella saw me from across the room, I got the country club kiss on the cheek. She looked new and fresh, reborn. I wanted to do something filthy to her, but just now.
She crinkled her nose and I met the man of the house. He had been making slow circles of all the rooms, greeting, shaking hands. He gave an air of being outside all of this, tolerant, but above it all.
I talked to some people, but it was all dull. I did not want to leave until I felt I could go a few days without a meal. The people had all begun to blur together hours ago. I began to pay more attention to the house.
I found myself in the library. It was beautiful. From the constant humidity the spines of all the books all had beads of perspiration. The shelves were fully stocked, because they were supposed to be. The pervading slickness showed a long standing indifference.
I thought of my own sad little library. Thrift store editions meticulously arranged in a blue plastic milk crate, pages marred by notes of students, back pages tattooed with phone numbers and movie times.
I looked again at the shelves. I read all the familiar names. One finger went down a shelf-load of spines, a caress whose moist finger I flicked at the floor.
It was getting late. Once I decided which book to take I would say my good byes.
I stood transfixed for I do not know how long. Chekov, I won't let you down again. I held it in my hand and put my coat over it.
Once I arranged my jacket, I was ready to go. A cough, caught, the chill momentarily felt good, hair on end.
A woman sat on the stool by the far shelves. Her hair was a pile of dark ringlets stacked high. All I saw was their silhouette and the orange dot of her cigarette. I walked over and she held out her hand for me to help her up.
"Is it good?"
"I will read you some later."
I liked that she had not asked "how much?", but how good. Later though I would discover she did have a mercenary side too.
We waved goodbye to strangers and left, a happy threesome.
We got back to my room, squeezing through the door, stubbing my shin on the bed frame.
"Don't steal anything."
That first time, we had both been lost in our own thoughts, a greediness that can not be anything but honest. It was good. She in my arms, me in my head.
Of course no one ever heard from Carmella again, this was to be expected. I think I saw her once, at a stoplight, black luxury car, windows rolled up, air conditioning blasting. I waited until she passed before crossing the street.
Maxine and I stayed together. We never formally promised each other anything, but for myself, I did not have the time to fuck around, between her and the club.
I would like to think that we brought out the best and worst in each other, really, it was extremes leaning more towards the "bad".
Stealing became an integral part of our foreplay. She set the fence, Tony. We would use the same guy so that we would not have to worry about renegotiating percentages each time. She would meet him at the club. I would play "On Green Dolphin Street" right before the set break. Maxine would use this time to make the trade out in the alley. If there were trouble I was only seconds away and only at the sacrifice of a solo.
Fairly fast I came to not like Tony. He always acted as if he had just happened by and was doing us a favor. I knew it was little people like us that were his bread and butter. He spent his days running all around town, openly contemptuous, paying out. He just happened by? I knew he hated jazz. Still, it was safe for Maxine and convenient for me.
Maxine always said that you had to spend money to make money. I agreed with her, but this always worked against us, since we managed to save nothing. We were perpetually running around, figuring out the angles for our next score. And in the end we had very little to show for our risks. A sort of Sisyphus of larceny.
We would both be able to actually save money if we just moved in together. Neither if us wanted to give up our own place though.
Trying to wear each other down, it became a battle of wills, often interrupted by petty stealing, bouts of savage fucking and blasts from my horn.
She threw the only two pans I had, out. So now, anytime I wanted to cook, I had to go to her place. Despite many victories though, she was smart enough to never touch my percolator.
A case of fish tank motors. I used my share to buy her a red bolero jacket which made her stop every time we passed the store window. The jacket looked fantastic on her, it became her defacto uniform when doing business. An army of one marching to "On Green Dolphin Street".
Everything about Tony began to get on my nerves. Everything had become a personal affront.
"He has money, more than us, why can't he dress nicer when he comes to see us? You have your jacket..."
She rolled her eyes but remained silent.
Now and then, to keep me off balance she would come up with some new games. We were in a bar, popular with the tourists. Sometimes she liked to grab a pocketbook off the floor of a neighboring stall in the ladies' room. The place was crowded, the music popular and bad.
"Which one do you like?"
I point with my eyes. A brown page boy haircut and cupid's bow of soft pink.
"Isn't she a little young?"
"I don't know, I can never tell any more."
She said I could if she was allowed to watch. Then her face lit up with some other idea as she was distracted away.
"Do as you wish, I will see you later."
We tried talk over the music. I did not think she heard me, Louise, but we ended up back at her hotel room. Her skin was too tan to actually live and work here, but I knew that already. Two single beds, green duffle bag on the floor, a small dresser crowned with half eaten bags of junk food and a television.
Right as we were about to start her roommate came back. The two of them went into the bathroom from which hushed voices occasionally escaped. Finally with a jerk, the roommate opened the door. She marched across the room, stopping only to turn on the television. Fully clothed, she lay on her side, back to us, reading a paperback as we began.
We finished, I felt better about life but knew that was temporary. I gave her the name of Sam Peckinpah. I felt like eggs and headed to Maxine's. I decided to shower first, she was already in there shaving her legs. Her look, that smirk, she had won again.
Although theft was an important part of our mating ritual, for me it also contained a private, vital aspect of purpose.
Stealing and being really sick, both more than anything else, more even than the horn, brought life into a tight, sharp focus.
Both things demanded a singular concentration until you were through them. Just for this time, all extraneous thoughts were obliterated. Gone too, for now, were the daily mundane things which so often managed to steal time.
Get better, don't get caught...
All of life temporarily reduced down to one prime concern. This philosophy I kept to myself. It was a truth and one which I did not care to hear criticized.
Mainly our scores were small time. It kept us from ever having to give out a percentage to anybody but Tony.
Tiny and under the radar, we still acted as if we were public enemy number one. I hated stealing the old televisions from hotels. They were heavy and paid out very little for the ache in my back.
The best we ever did were two tobacco canister sized jars full of Saffron. DeSalvo was out, in between sentences and working some kitchen. He brokered a deal with the owner who was also the chef. We had to wait a week for things to cool down before the sale.
Maxine let all the money go towards me getting a new place, bigger. She still kept hers too, but now I would no longer complain.
Again, I was next to a factory. This one made jams and chutneys. Wednesdays was always mincemeat and with open windows everything smelled like the holidays.
Life went on, I kept to my rituals both public and private.
I had to wait for a call about a truckload of knockoff designer bags. Am I the only one who is ever punctual? A night wasted, waiting around.
Three hours late, the call comes. The truck had been towed and is now in the municipal lot, not worth the risk.
I am hungry, but it is late. What I could get at this hour, it is not worth going out. I put a kettle on and grab some jam and a tin off the shelf.
It would not be good, but I was now really hungry. The tin did not open. The top, it was still attached by the tiniest sliver which revealed a jagged tooth as with two fingers, I finally pulled off the top.
In a final act of rebellion, the tooth bit back. Index finger blossoming a small corsage of crimson. I dabbed it with a towel, but still it kept coming. I put my finger in the palm of my other hand and squeezed as I ran the tap.
Once the sink was half full I put my hand in. For half a second it stung. I watched the water change color, a hue of a piece of cheap hard candy.
I stared at the water. Bloody water. Finding Margaret in the tub, having to run down street, an anonymous call from a drugstore payphone. She had not left any note, no reason, and in that way, won.
I feel a wave of nausea hit. I am back at the sink. Maxine had let herself in.
"What's wrong, you look a little green around the gills?"
Gripping my wrist she lifts my hand out of the sink.
"Yep, it is bleeding."
She makes light of it. For lack of anything else to do, she goes to suck it, but my look of revulsion is strong enough to stop even her. Wrapped in a dishtowel, I keep my hand elevated. It is late. We debate whether it is ok if I go to sleep or if that rule only applies to head injuries.
Finally we both do.
I remembered, as the sun came up, I was laying the wrong way, with my cheek pressed against the corner of the bed. I stare, her shoes, heels against the wall. I kept waiting for them to go somewhere.
Now they were immobile, legs having sprouted out of their tops, crowned by the foliage of a flowered dress. Only the hem visible from my current position without me moving.
She came towards me. She bent down and kissed my forehead. Lips are now just lips, lips are tragedy, I need it. I need it.
Image above, New Hat Looking Down, paper & pen by Wayne Wolfson
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